13 Survival Tips When You Hate Getting An MRI

A pretty blue brain on a pink background. If you hate getting an MRI this computerized brain is a soothing image.
If you have MS, there’s a good chance you’ll have at least one MRI a year, so it makes sense to figure out how to hack your annual Picture Day.

13 Survival Tips When You Hate Getting An MRI

An MRI is an imaging technique that uses magnets to take pictures of your brain while it’s still inside your skull. The hocus pocus happens in a giant scanner that’s part half-open coffin, part world’s largest photocopier; and, you’d think we would have figured out how to make them less scary or loud by now, but science is busy working on other shit, like this knife made out of poop. The images produced by an MRI can be used to help diagnose and monitor changes or progression in MS.

Ardra in her grade 8 school picture. She has an aggressive perm and hasn't yet grown into her buck teeth. These are the awkward years.
Nailing Picture Day since 1991

When I went for my first MRI, 19 years ago, I had zero chill about an experience that felt like being trapped in a screaming tube while it tried to Morse Code my brain damage. Now I’ve had at least 25 MRI’s (my most recent one was last week), and I almost look forward to them. I mean, the world is covered in plague, so the bar has been lowered on what qualifies as an exciting outing. I got to leave my apartment, and I got to lie down for an hour, so, that feels like a win. (Note to the MRI people: a lollipop would have been nice)

Getting an MRI isn’t painful or invasive, but it can be stressful.

Here’s how to get ready for the most detailed selfie of your life.

Ardra is wearing a Covid mask, a hospital gown and ID bracelet. She is standing in the MRI change room. She has added graphics of an MRI machine and brain with legs to the image.
If you didn’t take a selfie did it even happen?

Dress Comfortably

Rule number one of MRI-getting is you must be free of all metal and electronic devices, because according to urban legends, that could make you die. Check out this video to be scared off of earrings forever.

Holy shit, is this real? 

Who am I, Bill Nye? All I know is that I once had to have an emergency MRI while I was wearing microlink hair extensions. The Banker had to run to Canadian Tire to buy pliers (we’re not really toolbox people), so he could urgently remove six million metal tubes from my head. FML. Now I wear tape-ins.

And speaking of urban legends, fellow Tripper Kathy told me her last MRI had to be stopped because her anti-frizz hair product had some kind of metal particles in it. She had to wash her hair in the hospital sink (ew) before they could proceed.

A close up picture of a hair product called Frizz Ease.
silent killer

But back to wardrobe…

Every centre has a different policy, and some are cool with letting you wear track pants and a sports bra; but, my current facility has trust issues and they make me strip down and gown up. To hack this, I wore a simple knit dress (no buttons, no zippers) to my recent scan because getting dressed and undressed and then dressed again is for people who have the kind of energy to put their legs through leg holes more than once a day. And now I need a nap just thinking about it.

Wear the right mask

Despite being asked many, many times to confirm the absence of piercings, and past surgeries, and metal on my person, I was not asked about my Covid mask which in fact has a tiny metal bendy thing over the nose. Good thing I watched that cautionary video.

A selfie of Ardra wearing a ruffled Covid mask. She is in her library.
Fashion Safety First

Check your mobility aid

Is carbon fibre magnetic? Nobody knows. But if you use a mobility aid, you won’t be able to bring it into the room with the scanner, so consider bringing your wooden cane with your rollator or wheelchair if you can walk a few steps. Otherwise, you will be transferred in one of the MRI-safe chairs provided, or like me, you will be offered the sweaty arm of a helpful, but—I can’t stress this enoughsweaty technician.

Ardra stands outside, next to some graffiti. She has a white rollator and her dog is looking at her adoringly. She's pretty sure that you can't even bring a service dog to your MRI no matter how much you hate MRIs.
Leave your rollator in the hall and your dog at home.

Play the MS card

I don’t know what it’s like where you live; but in Canada, we’re short on  MRI scanners, which means we run the ones we do have 24/7. If you get an appointment at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, try to sweet-talk whoever’s booking you, because 3 a.m. is a garbage time for everyone except vampires and werewolves and you don’t want to run into either of those assholes. If you’ve got MS you’ve got enough problems.

Eat and drink before getting an MRI

Your doctor might want you to have contrast dye with your MRI to help distinguish any new or worsening damage. When this is indicated, you will be injected with something called gadolinium at the half-way point of your scan.

Hold up. I thought you said painless and non-invasive? 

The point is, you should eat a little something and drink some H20 before your scan, because you want to have available veins. My last scan was at 6 a.m. (barf), so I traded my breakfast smoothie for a granola bar, and my coffee for 16 chocolate covered espresso beans, because I am never in the mood for a caffeine detox.

But don’t drink too much

Your scan will take about an hour, and you don’t want to have to pee. Always go right before your scan, but don’t sweat it too much. I mean, they give you a panic button, and I assume that’s what it’s for.

And then hydrate LF

If you were limiting fluids to avoid peeing your pants and especially if you’ve had gadolinium, it’s super important to drink lots of water after your MRI. Your kidneys will thank you.

Accessorize

You will be given headphones and off-brand earplugs. I like to bring my own earplugs because I’m fancy and high-maintenance they actually work. I also like to bring a sleep mask, so if I accidentally open my eyes I won’t be reminded I’m trapped in a machine with a Hannibal Lecter-style cage around my face.

Ardra's MRI. It includes the eyes and they are pointed upwards. It's funny which makes her hate MRIs less.
Literally always rolling my eyes.

Choose your music wisely

I feel like the option to listen to your favourite music accompanied by the sound of a jackhammer just makes you hate your favourite music.

Stay in touch

Your technician will be able to communicate with you throughout your appointment. In my experience, they don’t enjoy my jokes, and they really don’t enjoy talking about their feelings. But, if you want them to keep you updated about how much longer you’re gonna be stuck in the scanner, they love that shit.

Medicate

If you’re super anxious, you can ask your doctor for valium or something similar ahead of time. Keep in mind that you won’t be allowed to go home alone, but do what you need to do to get by.

Check your results

Lots of places allow you to check your results online. But be aware that disappointing results can heighten anxiety. Keep in mind that the number of lesions you might have doesn’t necessarily correspond to symptoms or disability. If you suspect your news might be hard to hear, consider having a trusted loved one with you when you log on, or wait for your neurologist to break it down for you, when they can answer all of your burning questions.

Reward yourself

MS is hard. MS is a job. Part of the stress of getting an MRI is that it’s a reminder that you have a crappy disease. I like to treat myself like a four year old and give myself prizes on patient days. Little rewards for having to do so many unpleasant things: a latte, a cookie, a new car. I don’t know what your budget is. 

Getting an MRI is a routine part of having MS, and if it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s because I am. And if it sounds like I’m exaggerating, it’s also because I am. I promise you MRIs are safe, and even if you feel trapped, you really aren’t. The techs know what they’re doing and will prop you up with pillows and cover you in flannel blankies to make you as comfortable as possible. MRIs are an important diagnostic tool, and even I can admit they’re better than the hot bath test we had before they were invented. Plus, it’s pretty cool to see where my MS lives. If you’re not sold on how even damaged brains can be beautiful, check out Lindsey Holcomb’s work. I’ve been meaning to have her do my MRI portrait since I first heard of her; and, now that I have a fresh MRI I’m hoping she’s available.

Ardra's signature and Tripping On Air logo which is a pink drawing of a woman in heels with a ponytail who is falling backwards. She's holding a champagne flute which she doesn't drop because, priorites.

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19 thoughts on “13 Survival Tips When You Hate Getting An MRI”

  1. omg you always make me laugh so much … “enough energy to put your legs through leg holes more than once a day “ 🤣🤣🤣
    I know exactly what you mean !
    Oh and arms through arm holes too !!!

      1. Never have I ever been offered a washcloth to place over my eyes during an MRI nor have I ever thought about choosing a new car as my after MRI treat to self. All these years, I’ve just opted for an ice cream cone or a root beer float. Thank you for that nudge, I have 2 or 3 months to ponder make, models and color choices.

  2. Gad yes, thanks for the tips-especially on the mask! I’m due in a couple of months. And that panic button? Don’t bother, I damn near died of an asthma attack in that machine b/c they “assumed” I was “just” suffering from claustrophobia! They ignored me until I started kicking and screaming! Then, getting my emergency inhaler in that room was impossible since it was made of metal. I was in a blue-faced panic before it was over & the techs were in full-on panic mode calling the ER. Ignore me at your own peril!

  3. Don’t be afraid of being thought greedy because you’re using two hospital gowns – the type that are like dressing gowns. For my first MRI, I put on just one and was faced with a choice of either having my external plumbing hanging out or feeling the cool air against my buttocks. They allowed me to wear my underwear.
    Then, I figured that I should put on two gowns – one of them back-to-front. It doesn’t interfere with the images.
    My first MRI was at 1:40 in the morning. After it was over, I asked the technician if the images were clear. I was trying to figure out from his face what he had seen on the images. He kept a poker face.
    While I am inside the MRI, I listen to the clicks, groans, screeches, bangs, etc. and try to figure out whether machine is having an orgasm looking at my brain.

  4. I hate the part they put around the neck it adds to the claustrophobic feeling, as my swallow drugs up it adds to the sensation of not been able to catch my breath.

  5. It seems like every time I get into an MRI machine my legs decide they want to spasm into a tap dance. It’s like I know I have to lay perfectly still, so my leg spasms become extra annoying and remind me that they are still the boss of me.

  6. Ishmael Williams

    During my second or third MRI, and I’ve had only about 6 or 7, there was only one technician readily available. The other was, I believe, sweeping the premises. Actually broom sweeping. So she was not in the control room. The
    technician that was there was quiet. Silent. Not at all loquacious and absolutely not a tour guide. I at first thought “No big deal”. But then, a little at halfway through, I started to panic. What if that technician keeled over from one of a half-dozen reasons I could at that moment fathom? Id be trapped in this thing. Was there a way out? What do I do?

    No she didn’t keel over but it taught me to tell the technicians for all my other MRIs to please talk. Just so I know you are there. Thankfully now they all do but lesson learend.

  7. hello i am from England . i have m.e . ibs..migraines the list goes on .i take part in a lot lot Research ..people never see the Every day effects,there views/judgements are very Snotty Nosed
    my blog.http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter.supersnopper

    mark

  8. I fit in the mri machine but my arms dont and pedestrians may casually disappear when they see me coming if a car was my choice for treat considering I’m blind 😂😂

  9. I was a wreck for my first one, but the tech told me NOT to close my eyes before going in. I was skeptical, but she assured me that if I kept them open so I was aware of my surroundings as I slid in, then closed them once inside, I’d be better off than if I closed them from the start and then suddenly opened them and couldn’t see anything. It worked for me.
    But my new place has this little MIRROR placed just above your face, angled so that you can see out the tube past your feet and into the room where the techs are – total game changer!
    And ice cream after, always.

    1. i love your ice cream reward. My first MRI had the mirror, but my current one doesn’t. I’ve read about some that even have videos for kids. Every centre is different.

  10. I used to be in agony during MRIs due to serious claustrophobia. After over 20 years of MRIs it gets better. I personally take something to take the edge off. I use visualizations that I can use a rhythmic count to my breathing to keep me from hyperventilating. I kinda make a game of it; how relaxed can I get. Apparently I’ve gotten pretty good at it because falling asleep during an MRI is frowned upon.

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